By John N. Mitchell
PHILADELPHIA — I witnessed something in the last week that really took me aback; something that I should not be surprised to see, considering the times we live in and where we live.
As I drove past Fashion District Philadelphia, the city’s new downtown mall that has risen up in place of The Gallery, people were everywhere, toting bags, stuffing their faces with food and taking the celebratory selfies folks often take while spending money.
More telling, however, were the expressions on the faces of those who were not smiling or snapping photos.
The homeless had also migrated to the strip of Market Street where Fashion District Philadelphia is located.
It makes sense. Raise up a mall that attracts people who have some money to spend and naturally those who have none will gravitate there, looking for a friendly face or perhaps just someone to acknowledge their humanity with a friendly hello or maybe a dollar or two.
The sight is an unrelenting reminder of the omnipresent problem that poverty is in our city, and it was telling watching how many simply walked by or stepped over those extending cups to them in desperation.
Our city’s poverty rate can’t be ignored. At 26 percent, there are approximately 400,000 people in Philadelphia — a mass larger than the populations of cities such as New Orleans and Cleveland — living below the poverty line.
Poverty is the human misery that gets lost when the president touts the U.S. economy as the world’s greatest. While the national poverty rate declined for the third year in a row, 1.65 million U.S. households live in “extreme poverty,” which is defined as surviving on less than $2 per day, per person, each month. In 1996, that number was 636,000.
In Los Angeles, the rising cost of housing coupled with wage stagnation at the lower end of the income spectrum resulted in a 12 percent rise in homelessness in Los Angeles County.
Looking at the micro oftentimes gifts you with a better perspective of the macro, in this case, the macro being the 2020 presidential election.
I’ve wearied of the Democratic presidential debates due to their predictability. I don’t need to hear another Democratic hopeful insisting that we have a white supremacist in the White House, not when the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed this years ago when it found evidence that Trump refused to rent to Black tenants and lied to Black would-be applicants about the availability of rental units.
The 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were virtually devoid of any give-and-take on poverty and hunger. So far, the 2020 Democratic primary debates have been, too.
Last month, the Rev. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, named for Dr. Martin Luther King’s final campaign, joined anti-poverty group Bread for the World in urging the Democratic presidential candidates to stop ignoring poverty and have a debate focused on that issue alone.
“We have to say the word, ‘poverty.’ We need to lift up the stories of folks in Appalachia and Kansas and the Mississippi Delta,” Barber told members of the Democratic National Committee. “We need to hold them alongside the folks in our gentrifying cities, some of whom work two jobs and still sleep in their cars at night.”
That might not sound as sexy as long soliloquies about free college and debt cancellation. But to the have-nots clustered hopelessly across our city and across the nation, it is the moral debate to have.
John N. Mitchell is a columnist and reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune, where this piece first appeared.